By Mark Arsenault -
Four years ago, a methodical search for a new place of worship led a group of gay Roman Catholics to the Rev. John Unni, the youthful priest at St. Cecilia’s Church. The search committee was blunt: Would the priest accept an influx of gay and lesbian parishioners?
“He told us, ‘All are welcome,’ ’’ said John Kelly, now head of the St. Cecilia Rainbow Ministry.
Kelly and other parishioners credit Unni with managing the merger of the predominantly gay congregation from the Jesuit Urban Center, which closed in 2007, and with keeping gays and lesbians in the Catholic Church, despite the uneasy balance between the church’s message of love for all and its strict doctrine against gay relations.
Father John, as his parishioners call him, says he is trying to live the words of Jesus Christ, as he has seen them lived out.
Unni was 16 when his father died. The St Theresa Parish community in his hometown of North Reading responded with meals delivered to the family’s door, with rides to practices and rehearsals and whatever help they could offer a broken family.
“People lived out the Gospels,’’ Unni, 49, said in an interview yesterday evening. “That’s when I learned what church was.’’
He said the response from his hometown was “the total opposite to the hateful reaction’’ that Unni and St. Cecilia have received recently from some conservative critics over the church’s plan to hold a June 19 Mass under the theme, “All are Welcome,’’ to commemorate Boston’s Gay Pride Month.
“All we’re trying to do is welcome a group that has been marginalized,’’ he said.
Critics have accused the church, and Unni, of celebrating behavior the church opposes. Those critics “are not about hate or lack of acceptance of people with same-sex attractions,’’ wrote blogger Joe Sacerdo, who has written extensively on St. Cecilia’s plans.
“The Catholic Church believes sex between men and men, or sex between women and women, is morally wrong and sinful. Period.’’
Last week, the archdiocese stepped in and postponed the “All are Welcome’’ service, saying it gave the impression that St. Cecilia’s supported the annual Gay Pride celebration.
Unni addressed the controversy during his homily Sunday, saying parishioners “are welcome here, gay or straight, rich or poor, young or old, black or white.’’
“Here,’’ he said, “you all can say, `I can worship the God who made me as I am.’ ’’
Parishioners responded with a standing ovation.
The reaction demonstrated how thoroughly Unni understands his congregation, said Rosaria Salerno, Boston’s city clerk, who has been a parishioner at St. Cecilia’s for some 30 years.